Safe havens for endangered wildlife or profit-motivated prisons for exploited animals? What is life really like for animals in zoos?


Safe havens for endangered wildlife or profit-motivated prisons for exploited animals? What is life really like for animals in zoos?

Zoos around the world have had their fair share of controversies. Even our own Melbourne Zoo has many examples of abuse and neglect, despite its reputation as a world leader in zoo management.

While stories of extreme neglect are reported and catch the public’s attention, living in an unnatural environment is just as devastating.

The stress of constant forced exposure to humans and a lack of privacy  weighs heavily on animals who would naturally live isolated or hidden lives. Abnormal behavior patterns such as pacing (called stereotypies), obesity and extreme aggression are symptoms of psychological distress.

Though some might praise the role zoos play in wildlife conservation, in reality only a small fraction of individual animals in zoos are part of conservation programs. Most animals are imprisoned in zoos for far more profit driven motives.


22nd May 2015, Julia a 33 year old gorilla tragically died following being attacked by Otana, a male silverback gorilla. Julia at age 33, had been captive at Melbourne Zoo for 20 years.

Julia sustained life-threatening injuries while under the care of Melbourne Zoo. Despite being aware of the attack which took place just before 9.30am, zoo staff did not get Julia to veterinary care until the following day.

Julia died after Melbourne Zoo failed to provide timely medical care photo by News Limited

Animals in zoos frequently display stereotypic behaviours which include rocking, head nodding, over-grooming, self-mutilation, neck twisting, chewing and bar biting, including abnormal maternal behaviour and hyper-aggression. It is possible that Otana was expressing extreme frustration as a result of years of confinement.

Melbourne Zoo had previously kept one gorilla, Rigo, isolated for 16 years in an antiquated enclosure.

We cannot glimpse the essential life of a caged animal, only the shadow of their former beauty.

– Julia Allen Field

Elephant abuse

Melbourne Zoo is recognised as one of the best zoos in the world, however an internal memo leaked several years ago revealed terrible animal abuse.

The memo detailed an incident where an elephant was stabbed multiple times by a zoo ‘trainer’ with a sharp metal spike. The leaked memo read: “After a time trying to control the elephant, Pat appeared to become extremely angry and used his marlin spike to stab at the elephant’s leg repeatedly in excess of a dozen times. The elephants seemed obviously distressed, standing back to back, vocalising and defecating.”

In 2013, another incident was reported where baby elephant Sanook died after tragically choking to death when her head became entangled in a tyre swing placed in the enclosure as a form of enrichment.

Sanook died after becoming entangled in a tyre swing photo by Herald Sun

More recently in 2017, Bong Su, a male elephant, was euthanized after 40 years of confinement at Melbourne Zoo. (A photo of Bong Su is featured at the top of this article). Bong Su was stolen from the wild as a calf and lived his life in a prison. In the words of former senior Melbourne Zoo curator Peter Stroud, “Bong Su is dead. Not because he reached old age, but because he was broken by cramped and impoverished zoo conditions and a terrible inability, through much of his life, to meet his true needs.” 


In 2014 at Copenhagen Zoo, a healthy young giraffe Marius was killed by a bolt to the head in front of a crowd of people, including children. He was then dismembered and fed to other animals.

Despite several offers of homes, 18 month old Marius was killed because zoo staff decided he did not have the right bloodline. This serves as a reminder that zoos are certainly not safe havens for animals, they are profit driven animal prisons.

The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, of which Copenhagen Zoo is a member, issued a press release “fully supporting” the decisions and policy of the Copenhagen Zoo.

Despite an online petition to save him, Marius was slaughtered by Copenhagen Zoo photo by AFP/Getty Images

Are the animals happy?

There is clear evidence that zoos severely compromise the lives of those imprisoned inside them. They promote unnatural behavior patterns, and for many species such as elephants, their unnatural environment shortens their life span. All forms of captivity can have negative effects on animals.

“… When people say something like “Most animals in zoos are unhappy” because they’re not fans of zoos they’re accused of being anthropomorphic and wrong. They’re told … that the animals are happy. But, of course, claiming that animals are happy is also being anthropomorphic so the charge of anthropomorphism is vacuous.”

– Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Prisoners for profit

Animals are commodities to zoos, to be bought and traded (like Julia’s son was, when he was taken from her and sent to another zoo) and disposed of when they no longer turn a profit. If zoos were concerned with conservation efforts, they would only care for endangered animals, but the truth is that only about one fifth of animals in zoos are threatened species. 

Confining animals for their entire lives in unnatural enclosures is stressful and causes harm, just as restricting a human’s freedom is psychologically harmful.

Think about this

The saddest thing about zoos is the way they drive animals mad. Much of the behaviour we take for granted in zoo animals – repetitive padding up and down, head banging, obsessive paw swinging, or just plain moping – is actually psychotic, the sort of thing humans get driven to when they are kept in solitary confinement.

– Bill Travers, Star of “Born Free” and co-founder of Zoo Check